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The Republic | Book 1 | Summary

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Summary

The narrator Socrates recalls a visit he made the previous day to Piraeus, the port of Athens. He went there to see the observances of the festival of the goddess Bendis. While in Piraeus, Socrates encountered some friends: the elderly merchant Cephalus, his son Polemarchus, and Glaucon and Adeimantus, the two brothers of Plato. This group, along with several others, gathered at Cephalus's house, where they asked Socrates to spend some time with them in philosophical conversation.

Cephalus begins the discussion by reflecting on old age. He tells Socrates he feels liberated from the headlong passions of youth. His inherited wealth has accorded him a certain welcome freedom from cares, necessity, and the fear of death.

Socrates asks Cephalus what he means by justice, thereby initiating a discussion that will dominate the dialogue as a whole. Cephalus responds by defining justice as speaking the truth and repaying one's debts. This claim is soon followed up by Polemarchus, who uses the lyric poet Simonides as a springboard to assert justice is the practice of benefiting one's friends and harming one's enemies. But Socrates argues such a definition is flawed because it is sometimes hard to determine who is a true friend and who is really an enemy. Such a definition breaks down, argues Socrates, since it allows for the possibility of injuring another person, which can in no case be considered just.

At this point Thrasymachus enters the discussion with a boisterous tirade, accusing Socrates and the other speakers of folly. Justice, proclaims Thrasymachus, is nothing more or less than the interest of the stronger. At first Socrates uses polite but unmistakable verbal irony as he expresses hesitation about this definition. In response Thrasymachus grows bolder and more extravagant, asserting a just person always loses out to an unjust one. Socrates then adopts a solemn tone, openly declaring himself to be unconvinced. Even if an unjust person is given free sway, Socrates says, he does not possess a superior advantage over a just person.

In a series of questions Socrates elicits from Thrasymachus the reluctant admission justice may be equated with virtue and wisdom, while injustice is allied with vice and ignorance. Socrates then embarks on another tack in which he persuades Thrasymachus to agree all things—for example, the eyes and the ears—have an excellence and a purpose, or end. The end of the soul, Socrates asserts, is life itself. An evil soul must be an evil ruler, and a good soul must be just, since justice is the excellence of the soul. It follows, then, the just person is happy and the unjust is miserable. Thrasymachus cannot possibly be correct in his definition of justice.

Although Socrates has succeeded in overturning the assertions of Thrasymachus, at the end of Book 1 he confesses he is unhappy because he still does not know precisely what justice is. He has, he says, been like a gourmet at a banquet table who goes from one dish to another, sampling each delicacy. He has gone from one subject to another, with the result he knows nothing at all. The discussion ends, at least for the moment, in an aporia, or dead end.

Analysis

The beginning of Socrates's momentous discussion of justice and the ideal state is notably casual and matter of fact, as Socrates describes his journey to Piraeus to watch the celebrations at a religious festival. Note the playful banter with Polemarchus and Adeimantus, as well as the courteous, bittersweet reflections of Cephalus on old age. Plato sets the scene vividly and skillfully, without so much as a hint of the seriousness that is to come.

Also noteworthy are Plato's allusions to well-known Greek poets—literary references he puts into the mouths of his characters. For example, Cephalus refers to Sophocles's description of youthful passions as a "mad and furious master" and to Pindar's metaphor for hope as a "kind nurse." Polemarchus also references Simonides as the source for the definition of justice as speaking the truth and paying one's debts. Somewhat later on, Socrates quotes Homer on the character of Autolycus, the maternal grandfather of Odysseus, hero of the epic Odyssey. Sophocles was among the best known and most popular of the Athenian tragic dramatists, while Pindar and Simonides were preeminent Greek lyric poets who flourished in the first half of the fifth century BCE. Homer, of course, was revered and memorized as the foundational poet of Greek literature.

These allusions, as well as many others throughout the Republic and in Plato's other works, make it apparent that the ancient Greeks of Socrates's and Plato's time lived primarily in an oral culture. During this time, poetry played a major role, not only as literature and entertainment, but also as a normative resource for the conduct of everyday life and the understanding of human nature. It may seem paradoxical that Plato, who reveals such antagonism to poetry later in the dialogue, makes his characters refer to poets and their works or statements, but by doing so he is disclosing the considerable extent of their authority.

Besides Socrates, the dominant figure in Book 1 is Thrasymachus, whose name (fittingly) means "bold in war." His introduction, not unlike his thesis about justice, is jarring. Socrates says, after several frustrated attempts to join the discussion, Thrasymachus "came at us like a wild beast, seeking to devour us." The sight of him, according to Socrates, inspired panic in the others. It is Thrasymachus who mockingly taunts Socrates. There is a crucial difference in the way the two characters use verbal irony to suggest a meaning that conflicts with their words. Socrates's irony is nearly always gentle, civil, and self-deprecating, while Thrasymachus uses irony as an aggressive bludgeoning tool for the denigration of his opponents and for his own self-promotion.

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